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Books -- February 1996

A Gift for Dialogue

by Dennis Drabelle


edited by Brian Henderson.
University of California Press, 848 pages,

Read the first chapter of
Five Screenplays by Preston Sturges


edited by Brian Henderson.
University of California Press, 975 pages,

Read the first chapter of
Four More Screenplays by Preston Sturges

"AT the present writing, what with throwing away stuff I haven't liked, I have about forty pages of shooting script," Preston Sturges wrote to an anxious Darryl F. Zanuck in 1947. "This need not alarm you as I spritz dialogue like Seltzer water once I know where I'm going."

What that claim lacked in diffidence, it made up for in deadeye truth. Preston Sturges spritzed some of the best dialogue ever written for American movies. He could be slangy: in Easy Living (1937), Ray Milland urges Jean Arthur to steal food from a busted Automat window in snappy vernacular, saying, "Don't be a sucker, sister. That beef pie is a wow." He could be high-toned: in Unfaithfully Yours, Rex Harrison rages haughtily at a suspicious Rudy Vallee, "You dare to inform me you had vulgar footpads in snap brim fedoras sluicing after my beautiful wife?" (Harrison gets a comeuppance when it's pointed out that what he meant was "flatfoots" and "sleuthing," not "footpads" and "sluicing." And soon he's suspicious too.)

But these are one-liners. Sturges's real flair was for spiraling exchanges between two or more characters, which typically run too long to print here: cardsharp Barbara Stanwyck's ensnarement of naive heir Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve, for example, or the opening of Sullivan's Travels, in which movie director Joel McCrea confounds his studio bosses with the bombshell that he's through making comedies and wants to get serious. Nothing quite like these verbal volleys has been heard before or since.

During his wonder years, from 1940 to 1944, Sturges applied his gift for dialogue--along with his skills as a director and a producer--to the flagging genre of romantic comedy, which he almost singlehandedly sustained with Christmas in July, The Lady Eve, Sullivan's Travels, The Palm Beach Story, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, and Hail the Conquering Hero. (In the midst of these came The Great Moment, a structurally innovative biopic about the man who introduced ether as a surgical anesthetic.) Together with Unfaithfully Yours (1948), they constitute an unrivaled burst of Hollywood creativity--movies that are caustic, boisterous, tumultuous, naughty, witty, and laced with surprising tomfoolery by actors who had rarely excelled in film comedy before (Fonda, Stanwyck, McCrea, Harrison, Vallee, and Mary Astor), not to mention crack supporting work by a stable of character players. On the strength of this period Sturges belongs with the great writer-directors, the true auteurs: the likes of Chaplin, Keaton, and Bergman.

What distinguishes him from the others, though, is the unlikely path he took to become a director. He started out as a Hollywood screenwriter. The industry has long since grown accustomed to writers-turned-directors: John Huston, Billy Wilder, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Lawrence Kasdan, and Nora Ephron, to name just a few. But before Sturges one has to go back to the silent era to find any. In the interim the studio system had pigeonholed employees, expecting them to stay in their places and be fruitful. Not only did Sturges trade his typewriter for a megaphone but he helped Wilder, a Paramount colleague, make the same switch.

Sturges had come to Hollywood from Broadway early in the talkie era, and spent most of the 1930s supplying scripts to contract directors. Among the movies made from these are three comedies that can hold their own with the later, all-Sturges works--The Good Fairy, Easy Living, and Remember the Night--and a drama, The Power and the Glory, whose flashback-driven narration was a prototype for Orson Welles's Citizen Kane. Though lavishly paid (at his peak he was earning $3,250 a week), Sturges chafed when the studios doctored and cut his scripts. He kept running up against the kind of maddening circularity that squelches talented aspirants everywhere: despite his brilliance and knowledge of the medium, nobody would let him direct because nobody else had let him direct.

In 1939 Paramount finally gave him a try, with his script for The Great McGinty, the story of a onetime vagrant who gets elected governor of his state. The early rushes looked so promising that when Sturges came down with pneumonia, the studio refrained from handing the project to another director and waited for him to get well. The film was a hit, and Sturges won an Oscar for its screenplay. He found he didn't merely like directing; he "reveled" in it. With a trunkful of draft scripts and embryonic ideas to draw upon, he was off on his five-year roll.

When the University of California Press brought out Five Screenplays by Preston Sturges, in 1985, it was redressing neglect and trying to endow posterity. To see a Sturges movie at the time, one almost had to live in a city with an "art-house cinema," and even then, of course, one was dependent on its programmer's whims. Film preservation was underfunded. Against the possibility of losing Sturges films to obscurity and decay, prudence called for at least disseminating their scripts.

The intervening decade has witnessed a Sturges revival, with film-society retrospectives of his work and the publication of a critical biography by Diane Jacobs (Christmas in July: The Life and Art of Preston Sturges). The case for Sturges has also been made in stylish books by James Harvey (Romantic Comedy in Hollywood From Lubitsch to Sturges) and Elizabeth Kendall (The Runaway Bride: Hollywood Romantic Comedy of the 1930s). Repertory cinemas have all but vanished, but most of the movies Sturges wrote and directed are now available on video. The cable channel American Movie Classics regularly broadcasts the vintage output of Paramount and Twentieth Century-Fox, with the result that televised showings of Sturges films have become commonplace.

Meanwhile, that first book of screenplays has gone into a second hardcover printing and a paperback edition. If the new volume, Four More Screenplays by Preston Sturges, is arriving with less urgency, it is still welcome--a bonanza for scholars and a kickshaw for buffs.

SOME critics and biographers of Sturges depict him as caught between the artistic leanings nurtured by his self-indulgent mother and an urge toward success inspired by his bourgeois adoptive father. It's true that he was familiar with both ways of life: almost from his birth, in 1898, he had a divided childhood. His mother, née Mary Dempsey, changed her name to Mary Desti in the interests of bon ton, fled with little Preston to Europe for as much of each year as she could manage, and cultivated artistes. She became best friends with the bohemian dancer Isadora Duncan, in whose death Desti played an unwitting part. She had given Duncan the red shawl that the dancer was wearing as she settled into a sports car in 1927. While Desti looked on helplessly, fringe on the shawl got caught in a wheel as the car began to move; the yank broke Duncan's neck.

If Edith Wharton had written farce, she might have created a heroine like Desti, who had her share of triumphs; she started an intermittently successful cosmetics business and married money several times, in more than one currency. But she embroidered her life with fantasies. "She was . . . endowed with such a rich and powerful imagination," Sturges wrote, "that anything she had said three times, she believed fervently. Often twice was enough." In a fog of truth and bluff mixed together, she steered her son through Continental art galleries and concert halls and dragged him to toga parties in posh resorts. As a boy, he met Enrico Caruso, Cosima Wagner, Lillian Russell, Theda Bara, and Aleister Crowley.

Periodically he went home and lived with his beloved adoptive father, Solomon Sturges, a stockbroker in Chicago; the stable environment exerted a strong appeal. The elder Sturges bankrolled his wife's sojourns until their increasing length made it clear that the marriage was a sham. Solomon and Preston remained close all their lives, whereas Preston's biological father, a man named Edmund Biden, came calling only after his son was rich and famous.

The young man's schooling was irregular and stopped short of college. He dabbled in inventing and songwriting and ran his mother's company from New York for several years, until she came back and claimed it. His first wife walked out on him, ending their marriage. After appendicitis nearly killed him at age thirty, he looked in the mirror and saw a failure in the making.

Shortly afterward a hostile girlfriend helped him to discover his métier. When she announced that she was writing a play to expose him as a swaggering oaf, he vowed he would write a better one. "And what's more," he told her, "my play will be produced first and will run longer." He won his bet, though the play didn't run all that long. But his second effort, Strictly Dishonorable, stayed on Broadway for more than a year. When subsequent plays flopped, he moved to Hollywood, a seller's market for bright dialogue. There he quickly mastered the rest of the screenwriter's craft, including a sense of pacing that allowed his plots to make giddy turns without leaving the audience behind.

JAMES Agee, in a favorable review of Hail the Conquering Hero, was among those who diagnosed a divided psyche in Sturges, asserting that it was reflected in his work. The "mastering object" of Sturges's comedies, Agee wrote, was to

sail as steep into the wind as possible without for an instant incurring the disaster of becoming seriously, wholly acceptable as art. They seem to me, indeed, in much of their twisting, the elaborately counterpointed image of a neurosis. It is an especially interesting neurosis . . . the definitive expression of this country at present--the stranglehold wedlock of the American female tradition of "culture," the male tradition of "success."
Brian Henderson, the film professor who has edited both volumes of screenplays, takes issue with this---and rightly so. Like many other Americans during the Depression, Sturges was fascinated by somersaults of fortune, which figure in several of his plots: in Easy Living, The Great McGinty, Christmas in July, The Palm Beach Story, and Hail the Conquering Hero. He rubbed shoulders with tycoons and was especially good at caricaturing the vacuous American millionaire-by-inheritance. But his was not the career of a trimmer. He "persisted with The Great Moment," Henderson writes, "even though it cost him the enmity of his studio [Paramount] and finally undid him, simply because he believed in the project."

In Sullivan's Travels, which confronts the tension between art and commerce, the eponymous director-hero, who hankers after social significance à la Frank Capra, is an object of Horatian satire. In the end Sullivan decides to stick with what he does best, even if it happens to be gratifyingly lucrative, after an audience of convicts watching a Disney cartoon reminds him of the value of laughter. Obviously the film pleads for Sturges's own inclinations. But it's hard to square this good-natured work with the notion that its creator shrank neurotically from gravitas.

What is bothersome about his movies is that too often--pressed for time and with an eye on the groundlings--Sturges suspended the verbal fun in favor of formulaic slapstick. His masterpiece, The Lady Eve, is blemished by all the trippings, beanings, and food-spatterings inflicted on Henry Fonda. Sturges moaned when the Paramount bosses wrested The Great Moment away from him and "cut [it] for comedy." But he had played into their hands by larding the story with a rampage in a bottle shop, a plunge through a glass window, and multiple pratfalls.

The intricate version of that film which Sturges approved is lost, but the simplified studio release is out on video. The script's inclusion in Four More Screenplays allows readers to visualize what Sturges had in mind and then rent the video and see what a hash Paramount made of it. But comparing other scripts with their filmed incarnations reveals movement toward perfection. In The Lady Eve, for example, Stanwyck's anticipation of her revenge on Fonda improves from "I need him like Dempsey needed Firpo" on the page to "I need him like the axe needs the turkey" on the screen.

There is also the pleasure of watching written instructions spring to life. Again in The Lady Eve, just after Stanwyck and Fonda marry, she exacts her revenge by making up and flaunting a promiscuous past. She ran off with her first husband at sixteen, she claims. This was Angus, "a groom on Father's estate." Fonda's reaction line is "A groom!"--which Sturges wanted him to say "as if he had swallowed vitriol." To hear Fonda croak the word "groom" is to witness a lovely coupling of intention with execution.

THE culture Sturges was force-fed as a boy came to fruition in Unfaithfully Yours, a Juvenalian satire about a maestro (Harrison) whose fantasies of dealing with his allegedly unfaithful wife (Linda Darnell) jibe with the various musical war-horses he conducts. The movie flopped, in part because of a ghastly coincidence. In the dominant fantasy sequence Harrison murders Darnell. Before the film opened, Harrison's real-life girlfriend, the actress Carole Landis, killed herself. Twentieth Century-Fox lost confidence in Unfaithfully Yours; the reviews were mixed; and it failed to find an audience.

Between Paramount and Fox, Sturges had gone into partnership with Howard Hughes--a disaster that produced only one movie, the so-so Sin of Harold Diddlebock. According to Henderson, Diddlebock is still tied up in Hughes's estate and thus is unavailable for reprinting.

Beginning in 1940 Sturges squandered much of his energy on The Players, a restaurant he designed, managed, and poured a fortune into. He seemed to need this white elephant as a status symbol, as if the Oscar and the kudos and the buckets of money weren't enough. He made another film for Fox, a Betty Grable vehicle called The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend. Its god-awfulness ended his American career. Abroad, he directed one last time--The French They Are a Funny Race, in dual French and English versions. It, too, was a clinker. By now he was drinking hard and almost broke; friends noticed him pocketing rolls from his lunch tray for the next morning's breakfast. In one of the last photographs taken of him, he looks a decade older than his sixty years.

Sturges died of a heart attack in 1959, while working on his autobiography in a New York hotel room. He was survived by his fourth wife and their two young sons, and a son from his third marriage. Money had gotten so scarce that he hadn't been able to join his new family in California since their return from Europe a year and a half ahead of him. But there's no need to dwell on his grim end. Preserved on videocassette and in these two books of screenplays, the Sturges legacy is secure.

Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; February 1996; A Gift for Dialogue; Volume 272, No. 2; pages 108-113.

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